BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan — Weary and sunburned but proud, 400 American soldiers who fought tenacious battles with Al Qaeda and Taliban troops in eastern Afghanistan returned here Sunday, some of them telling bitter stories of being let down by an Afghan commander.
The troops represent about a third of the U.S. force sent to battle Taliban and Al Qaeda holdouts in the mountainous Shahi Kot region in a campaign dubbed Operation Anaconda. But senior Bush administration officials gave conflicting accounts Sunday of whether the pullout meant the battle was winding down.
Maj. Bryan Hilferty, a spokesman for the Army's 10th Mountain Division here, told reporters, "The major fighting of the battle is over."
But Army Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, disputed the notion that the fight in rugged terrain south of Gardez, which began March 2, was subsiding. He said that it was evolving and that troops were being repositioned within the battlefield or on its perimeter. In some cases, he said, fresh troops were rotating in.
"I'm satisfied with our progress up to this point," Franks said on ABC's "This Week." "And we'll continue to work our way through this area until we are satisfied that we have taken out all" of the enemy forces.
He added that the U.S. forces had found no sign of either Osama bin Laden or other Al Qaeda leaders.
Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on CNN's "Late Edition With Wolf Blitzer" that the soldiers who returned to Bagram would "rearm and refit" and return to the battlefield. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that troops were "mopping up."
In Gardez, the capital of Paktia province, about 25 miles north of the fighting, U.S. bombers and helicopters could be seen flying Sunday, and the heavy concussion of bombs targeting enemy positions could be heard as night fell.
Safi Ullah, a spokesman for the city's council, said Sunday night that local Afghan forces were still getting ready to join the United States in a few days in a renewed ground assault against the Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who have taken shelter in an extensive cave complex.
But there were also growing signs of tension in Gardez over the presence of 1,000 troops from the north, under the command of Gen. Gul Hydar, who had arrived Saturday after having been sent from Kabul by the central government.
Among the soldiers returning to the base in Bagram, there was pride at what U.S. and allied forces had accomplished since the first day of the battle, when the operation, named for a snake that encircles and then constricts its prey, was surprised by the enemy.
Hilferty said U.S.-led coalition troops were in control of the Shahi Kot valley, which was taken during the only concerted ground warfare by U.S. troops. That fighting cost the lives of eight Americans and left at least 13 wounded.
"If I was an Al Qaeda guy, I would not go out for a pizza," Hilferty said. Still, he said, pockets of resistance remained.
The troops had gone into battle with a mission to form "blocking positions" in the valley, a military term for preventing the enemy's escape. Theirs was an opening move in Anaconda, an operation encompassing an area of 60 to 70 square miles.
Allied Afghan troops, commanded by Gen. Zia Lodin, were supposed to have led their forces, including tanks, into the southern end of the narrow Shahi Kot valley to flush Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters from their strongholds toward the U.S. forces, but the Afghans came under fire and never made it to their position, the soldiers said.
Hilferty and the other soldiers interviewed in Bagram said Lodin's failure to arrive with his forces left U.S. troops the targets of withering mortar and gunfire from the south, where Lodin should have been.
Several returning soldiers heaped derision on Lodin and painted a picture of a well-prepared opposition that made ample use of advanced weaponry.
"He punked out on us," said a sergeant from the 10th Mountain Division, based in Fort Drum, N.Y., who identified himself only as Shawn. "I don't know how much we paid him, but I'll shoot him myself. He was supposed to roll in. Day 1 he was supposed to attack, and we were supposed to set up blocking positions so they couldn't get out."
Another member of the 10th Mountain Division, who identified himself as Shannon, said Lodin "didn't perform. He took a couple of mortar rounds and took off."
But a Special Forces officer, who identified himself only at Lt. Col. Mark, defended Lodin's role, saying he had an "insufficient force ratio" but recovered from a serious mortar attack to take several key positions on the second day of battle and again, about four days later. Lodin now is helping block key roads, he added.
Afghans No Less Brave